By Eli Sanchez
Silver Screen Capture
Orson’s Welles’ 1958 film noir masterpiece Touch of Evil (A-) tells the story of a demented small border town sheriff Hank Quinlan (Welles) who has amassed quite a record of arrests which are usually solved based on hunches to which we eventually find are based far more on planting evidence rather than any real detective work. Either way, the local authorities treat him as some sort of demigod. The initial opening shot is memorable as it’s a long scrambling tracking shot. You get a full panorama of a chaotic small town that even seems to be noisy and bustling in the wee hours of the morning. Enter Charlton Heston as a Mexican drug trafficking attorney and his wife Janet Leigh who happen to be crossing over from Mexico at about the time a bomb goes off in a car that was also passing the border, and you find yourself in the middle of intrigue. The film meanders its way through Los Robles, a small Texas town near the Mexican border that is partially under control from a member of the Mexico City drug cartel who is also in cahoots with Sheriff Quinlan. Look for Marlene Dietrich as a fortune teller who seems to have some type of “friends with benefits” type of relationship with Hank Quinlan that speaks of years of some kind of weird unspoken abuse or co-dependent lovers’ spiral of mutual contempt and admiration. She prophetically reads his palm and states, “Your future is all used up.” The plot at times seems to get muddled as the main incident gets solved relatively quickly, but then the larger story unfolds involving a crooked cop running a border town and an attorney who figures out all the corruption. The film relies heavily on upward angle camera shots and incidental background music to feed the mood. Much of the music is of a party-like atmosphere that leads to the frenetic tone of the movie. Throughout much of the film, Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan lumbers around like a big aromatic sweaty mess; and by the end of the film, you feel like you’ve spent two hours in a musky sauna with him, and he hasn’t bathed. The ensemble features a large pastiche of seedy characters played to the hilt and features several famous actors who took pay cuts just to appear in a Welles directed film. Dennis Weaver, Mercedes McCambridge, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Cotton, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eva Gabor, and Keenan Wynn all have small and memorable parts.
Notes on the film’s many iterations:
This film has gone through three versions. The initial theatrical version apparently made little sense in 1958 but oddly enough won best film at the Brussels World Fair (being judged by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard). Subsequently, a re-cut of the film was released in 1976 that still didn’t solve the problems of plot in the film and still didn’t come close to Welles’ vision. Ultimately, a final recut of the film in 1998 was released that was re-edited according to a 58-page set of notes that Welles himself had written to the studio after they edited the film while he was on vacation in Spain. The film is available with all three versions in Blu-ray from Universal in a special limited edition release.